A stormy day at the track for Danica Patrick

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick smiled as she pulled on her red balaclava, as if discharging the collected nervous energy of the throng surrounding her race car.

The clock was expiring on Bump Day for the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

She had not yet earned a spot in the 33-car field. Failing to do so would have been unimaginable.

Rain was supposedly imminent, potentially leaving her just one opportunity.

She dispensed with the drama quickly. Four laps later she was qualified, posting an average speed of 224.861 mph over four laps to earn the 26th starting position in the Memorial Day weekend classic.

Later, Patrick's voice wavered and her attention wandered as if the realization was just beginning to set in -- how close it seemed she had come to the absolute calamity of her career.

An ominous series of pitfalls had marked Patrick's entire day. An already suspect race car failed morning inspection, forcing her to surrender her early Bump Day qualifying. Then came the thunderstorms that twice delayed the proceedings and ate away three hours and 46 minutes of the qualifying clock.

Patrick was next in line to make a qualifying attempt when rain forced the second delay. An ominous afternoon made very real the possibility that IndyCar Series' most popular and mainstream-accessible driver would miss the race that matters most to drivers and fans.

But skies cleared by 4 p.m. and, after an incredibly quick 37-minute drying of the massive 2.5-mile track, Patrick was on pit road, ready to make her first attempt of the day.

"I feel like I need a drink," she said. "That's really how I feel. I'm mad. I'm mad because I really thought we had a fast car. I really thought when we started out that we had a fast car that was fast enough to be in the top nine, even. Friday came and that kind of went away a little bit, and then to have it go the way it did, I'm relieved. I'm relieved that I'm in the race."

Surprisingly, Patrick was the last of a record-tying four females to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Simona de Silvestro will start 24th, although she was involved in a wicked crash Thursday and had to qualify a backup car with second-degree burns on her hands and fingers.

First-time starter Pippa Mann (32nd) and Ana Beatriz (33rd) will start next to each other on the final row.

"It's a huge relief and I'm very happy," said Mann, a 27-year-old rookie with no commitments for further races this season.

Beatriz and Mann qualified Sunday and survived several bump attempts, but their entry was infinitely more mundane than that of Patrick, who is making her seventh start in the race. The only woman to lead the race (as a rookie in 2005), she holds the gender record for qualifying (fourth, 2005) and finish (third, 2009).

Patrick was supposed to attempt to qualify second Sunday but lost her spot in line when the No. 7 Dallara/Honda failed an inspection, team owner Michael Andretti said.

"A part was changed from the day before and [IndyCar Series officials] made her go to the back of the line to fix it," he said. "[It was] something in the back of the car near the brake ducts or something."

Beatriz and Graham Rahal posted qualifying efforts before a 2-hour, 10-minute delay began eating into the scheduled six-hour session. Patrick waited through 13 other drivers' four-lap qualifying runs and was next in line when a caution was issued at 3:14 p.m. after Paul Tracy qualified 25th.

"To get in line again after the rain had cleared and have it come with only me left to go, it just kind of seemed like maybe it's just not supposed to happen this year," she said. "That's just the roller coaster you ride here. It makes you value the good days even more, and it makes you want to try like hell to never have these days ever again."

Race cars were removed from pit lane before a major torrent of wind and rain blew through, and Patrick retreated to team headquarters to wait out the storm. Missing this Indianapolis 500 would have been particularly poignant, as Patrick will decide this season whether to return to open-wheel racing or pursue a full-time career in NASCAR, where she has dabbled in the Nationwide Series the past two years.

"If I don't get to go out today, I will not be in the Indy 500," she said, recalling her thoughts during the delay. "That's just the way it was going to go. What do you do? I think we've all been rather speechless today. You're rolling around on your rolly chairs in the office room, and you just roll over and you're like, 'What do ya think?' And nobody has words. Nobody. I didn't have words. I didn't know what to say. I was speechless. I can't believe this was happening. But it is exciting, I guess."

She posted laps of 225.411 mph, 225.017, 224.566 and 224.453 for an average of 224.861 and the 26th starting spot, which was not approached by any racers in the remaining 70 minutes of the session. Patrick is the highest-starting full-time member of an Andretti Autosport team that failed to qualify its racers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway, a race-winner who is No. 4 in points this season.

Whether or not this is Patrick's last Indianapolis 500, she seemed reflective about her relationship with the old place, and what she'd accomplished Sunday.

"I've always said that this place is its own person," she said. "It reads you when you're nervous. It reads you when you're not confident. It reads you when you are. It throws a lot at you, but that's why this is the greatest racetrack in the world."

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